There are several things you won’t find on the Outer Banks in North Carolina – big hotels, nightclubs, neon lights or crowded beaches. What you will find on this collection of barrier island is a laid-back atmosphere, and loads of rental houses, restaurants, coffee houses and the tallest active sand dune in the eastern United States.
The Outer Banks in North Carolina are made up of a series of peninsulas, shoals, spits of land and barrier islands. They’re best known for: Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the New World; the site of the first Wright Brothers flight; and most importantly Brew Thru, the iconic drive-through beer and wine store.
In June, my wife, three daughters and I packed up and drove to the North Carolina shore from the Washington, DC suburbs. It’s a four-hour drive without traffic, but it’s been decades since there was no traffic on I-95. We got there in five-and-a-half, not including stops.
When we pulled onto the main drag of the Outer Banks, there was a long line of traffic, which is always the case during the summer.
Most of the rental houses are Saturday to Saturday, so everyone’s trying to check in at the same time. Fortunately, we (meaning my wife) had the foresight to book a house in Southern Shores, which is at the top of the main peninsula. We took an immediate left and avoided the traffic. Our place was only a minute away.
The first thing we did was claim our rooms, drop our bags, get dressed (or rather, undressed) and head for the beach, a short walk away. Right across the street was a wooden staircase and walkway that snaked through the small dunes and sand reeds to the Atlantic.
The water was clear blue-green and the waves were a bit rough and choppy. Not great for swimming, surfing or anything else, so we just waded in and swam out to the first set of waves. No sense in risking it. Undertow and riptides are nothing to mess around with.
Afterward, we set up our umbrella and chairs to relax. I had a book and a cooler of beer at my side. The three of us got along just fine.
Work and home were far away.
It is a short, steep beach and very isolated, typical of the Outer Banks. The beach towns are quiet, low-key and modest, not crowded or overbuilt. There’s no neon or bright lights.
The Outer Banks aren’t a party paradise (or hell, depending on your point of view) like Ft. Lauderdale.
(Although during college I did go with a bunch of friends for Beach Week at the end of the school year. One of those buddies was Charles “Chip” Esten, then known as Chip Puskar, who now plays the role of Ward Cameron on “Outer Banks” on Netflix.)
And the Outer Banks are not packed with families like Virginia Beach or Ocean City, Maryland. There are no big hotels or nightclubs, just homes and rentals along the shore. You always get a nice long stretch of shoreline to yourself, and no one bothers you. The people are friendly, but laid-back. The Outer Banks are all about natural beauty, peace and relaxation.
After lazing at the beach, we went back to the house and settled in.
Five bedrooms, 2½ baths, four decks with great views, sand volleyball pit, hot tub, horseshoe pit, games, books, puzzles, movies, washer, dryer, dishwasher, microwave, blenders, TVs with cable in every room, boogie boards, bicycles (with flat tires), full kitchen with all the amenities.
The house had everything you’d ever need. It was spacious with plenty of seating and private nooks, perfect for a family. And perfect for getting some room to breathe once in a while.
My oldest daughter’s boyfriend came down for a few days, and they had space to themselves. Our house was typical for Southern Shores. Some were bigger, others smaller. A lot of them have swimming pools and six bedrooms or more.
There are smaller units, like trailers, but well kept and cutely painted, ideal if you’re on your own or don’t want to spend a lot. Without much in the way of hotels or resorts, the Outer Banks is all about week-long rentals, and they do a great job of it.
My only complaint is a universal one: just because a house is within spitting distance of the beach doesn’t mean everything needs to be decorated in seashells and sailboats. Just sayin’.
I mean, we live in the suburbs but we don’t have pictures of CVS and cul-de-sacs on the walls.
We ordered a few pizzas and stayed in for the night. My wife and I had a late soak in the hot tub and afterward I read a book. Before bed, I explained what a VHS tape was and showed my kids how to use the VCRs.
The house came with a few DVD players, too, another technology on the endangered species list. The kids had fun being entertained by historical entertainment systems.
The next day we went to the beach again, and afterward we checked out the other towns along the peninsula. Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, Corolla, Nags Head, Duck. Despite the easygoing vibe, there’s a lot to do here. Surf shops, bookstores, coffee shops, more restaurants than you can shake a stick at.
Everything is downhome, friendly and unpretentious, and it only takes a few minutes to drive from one town to the next. You could easily bike between them, if you wanted to.
If you want to do more than just lay on the beach, you’re in luck. The Outer Banks offers sandboarding at Jockey’s Ridge, the tallest sand dune on the east coast.
There are also a few good surfing breaks, especially Hatteras. Jockey’s Ridge is a popular spot for hang gliding. My wife and two of our daughters had a wonderful experience gliding over the sand after a brief lesson and video.
You can also go snorkeling, diving, drive to a handful of historic and picturesque lighthouses, visit a water park, play putt-putt, or try go-kart racing.
The highlights? Hang gliding was the best, and soaking in the hot tub every day was a close second. We all hiked up Jockey’s Ridge one night to see the sunset, which was also great.
This is a rite of passage when you visit the Outer Banks. Friends, family and strangers meet on top of the dunes at sunset, take pictures, hang out, and make plans for later that night.
Dinner at Josephine’s Sicilian Kitchen in Kitty Hawk was also a high point. Good, simple Italian fare, but delicious. The atmosphere was chic and sophisticated but still relaxed and inviting. The traditional Italian food was a welcome change from the ubiquitous burger, fish and BBQ joints in the area.
What else? You can go dolphin watching, shipwreck diving (the shoreline is called the Graveyard of the Atlantic), kiteboarding, boogie boarding, or visit the Wright Brothers Memorial. The Outer Banks are calming and quaint, but never dull.
The Outer Banks are great for family reunions, and for friends or colleagues to chip in and get a place for the week. My parents used to rent two large houses side by side and invite everyone.
Aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews—my older brothers had wives and children. People with kids stayed in one house; and people who wanted to sleep past 5:00 am stayed in the other.
Semi-Pro Tip: Avoid the town of Duck. There’s a boardwalk and the original Duck Donuts, but it’s a tourist trap. Duck is one of the northernmost towns in the area, on the Currituck Sound.
It’s commercialized, crowded and filled with chintzy shops. There’s nothing to do there that can’t be done in a more chill town with a much better atmosphere.
After a week, the family was tan, tired, sandy and waterlogged. Traffic was a nightmare on I-95, as it always is, but we were happy to be going back home to our own beds.
We were even happy to get back to our jobs. Happy-ish. But we’ll be back next summer, and probably the one after that.
– Andrew Madigan is a novelist and freelance writer/editor. His latest book, A Nice Safe Place, is a thriller that comes out in November.